How to Distinguish Between a Good and Bad Impulse Buy

The impulse buy – the expensive item you come home with when you actually intended to pick up a packet of pasta, a jar of anchovies and some tinned tomatoes – is an institution in our shopping culture. ‘I just bought it on impulse’, we say, or ‘I was just passing and I saw it and I had to have it’.

Impulse purchases are unplanned purchases. They often occur at cash registers where goods are displayed so as to tempt shoppers as they leave the store. You’re most vulnerable to an unwise impulse buy when you’re tired, hungry, or feeling low.

The irony of the impulse buy is the contrast between the buyer’s lack of conscious planning and the lengths that stores go to in preparing their ambush. About 60 per cent of what we buy is unplanned, and store displays are carefully designed and positioned to tempt us to reach for our wallets or add an extra item to our trolleys on the spur of the moment.

The internet is rife with its own triggers for impulse buying. Anonymity, easy use of credit cards, navigational software and a seemingly infinite number of choices make the internet an ideal environment for encouraging us to buy on impulse.

Impulse buys aren't all the same

The difference between an impulse buy and something you buy intuitively – something that you really do need and want – isn’t always obvious. In fact, they can sometimes be the same thing – it depends on the reasons behind the purchase.

Often when we buy things suddenly, we’ve actually been planning the purchase for a long time. One evening my brother-in-law Robert came home with a shivery little ginger-coloured spaniel. He’d supposedly bought the pup ‘on impulse’, but his two young daughters had been nagging him to get them a puppy for over a year. Perhaps Robert hadn’t planned to buy the puppy – but his unconscious mind had.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling low and find yourself poised to purchase some overpriced video game based on a blockbuster that you enjoyed at the cinema, although you have no idea whether the game itself is any good, this is less likely to be the result of intuition.

So how do you distinguish between a good impulse buy and an unwise one? Here are some tips to keep you on track.

1. Have a budget in place. A budget with allocated spending for different categories gives you a structure that helps you to identify whether you can afford the item that’s clamouring for your attention.

2. Start a Priority List. A Priority List, which I describe in detail in my book The Inspired Shopper, makes a great supplement to a budget. It’s basically a list of all the things you want and need. Prepare this list slowly and mindfully, noting how you feel as you write an item down. Do you really need the item or not? Could you repurpose something instead?

If an item you get the urge to buy on impulse is on your Priority List, it may be something you want and need. But you still need to ‘check in’ at the time to ensure that it feels right to buy it.

3. Get in touch how are you’re feeling. There are many emotions that can tip us over into wanting to buy. Sometimes the item may be directly related to how you’re feeling (a chocolate bar when you’re hungry) or sometimes it’s just that you’re desperate to buy something – anything – and the item conveniently presents itself in front of you! Common feelings that can set off the urge to buy are sadness, disappointment, anger, fatigue, hunger – but even positive emotions like joy, triumph and relief can lead us to buy.

4. Tap into your intuition. There is another layer of experience deeper than emotions – your intuition. It’s always there, regardless of how you’re feeling. Once you’ve worked out how your intuition responds in shopping situations, you can always rely on it. Start to experiment with it in simple scenarios, like choosing the best bunch of celery, and go from there.

5. Let go of the item. Letting go of an item before you decide whether to buy it – a process I call relinquishing – is very similar to a cooling-off period. But it doesn’t rely on moving physically away from the item, or waiting a long time before making a decision. What’s important with relinquishing is that you actually let go of the item mentally. You decide that you won’t buy it, place it back of the shelf or rack, and then you stop to listen to how your intuition responds. Does it feel genuinely wrong to leave the item behind? Or is there a sense of relief?

The impulse buy and your Priority List

An impulse buy that your unconscious has been planning for a while may sometimes be a good thing. Deliberately hunting out a new wool wrap, kitchen trolley or pair of summer sandals can lead to a long, fruitless and debilitating search; when you most feel you need something, you often can’t find it.

The Priority List lets your unconscious do the searching for you. When you have an idea of all the things you need, you can be proactive without really trying because your unconscious mind will be on the lookout for those items. When the right item appears, you’ve checked out the specifications, the price is right and you’re ready to buy, snap it up.

However, in the case of any significant purchase, you’ll need to carry out research before you buy. You can delay what would otherwise have been an impulse purchase by researching the item once you’ve found it.

Should you buy something on impulse if it’s not already on your Priority List? Ultimately you make the rules – how much structure you need depends on how prone you are to overspending, and how confident you are that you can stick to your budget.

The more you practise, the better you’ll be at distinguishing between intuitive and purely emotional shopping desires. It’s better to err on the side of caution if you’re unsure –you can always put something on your Priority List once you find it, and go back and buy it when you’ve had time to decide whether it will genuinely enhance your life.

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like How to Stay Calm When Shopping Online!

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